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Catalyst was set up a year ago to help charities get better at digital. We’re working hard to make people more aware of the work we do. Here’s an explanation of our mission, our services, and how we came about.

Catalyst is a charitable initiative which helps the voluntary sector make better use of digital technology - particularly making good use of data, and designing digital services which meet the needs of users.

We’re not primarily a provider of direct support. Instead we work behind the scenes to create an enabling environment for charities. We exist to build the infrastructure that charities need to succeed. Where that’s already in place, we help it grow stronger. Where it doesn’t exist, we try to create it. By preference, we encourage and share work from others, rather than creating something new ourselves.

Our name comes from the theory that in a new or growing area, it’s important to have an organisation which acts as a “field catalyst” to ensure the right mechanisms and structures are in place.

Think of it like fishing. You know the saying - give someone a fish, you’ve fed them for a day. Teach them to fish, you’ve fed them for life.

But that’s not really true. The ability to fish is worth nothing without an enabling environment. You need the right equipment - a fishing rod, a pair of waders, a net. You need to know where the right places are to go fishing. You need transport to get you there. You need to know the weather reports. You may very well want to connect up with other people who are also fishing, to share ideas and pool resources.

Fishing is something which has been going on for a long time. An infrastructure exists which provides all those things. But digital service delivery in the charity sector is a new field. In many or most organisations, it’s not even someone’s job yet. The infrastructure doesn’t exist. It has to be built. And Catalyst exists to help think what it should look like, and build it.

Why focus on digital?

Our belief is that digital is now a core function for charities, and it’s important that every charity looks at how digital technology affects every part of their operation. We've seen many charities go through a digital transformation process - thinking about how technology might affect every aspect of the work they do - and emerge stronger as a result. In many charities, we’re seeing the emergence of digital lead as an essential role.

It's a case which we think has been made for us over the last few months of lockdown. These have been unprecedented times, but research into how charities handled lockdown found those who had strong digital functions have tended to survive it best. Over the course of the pandemic, that research found many charities have engaged with digital technology to a much greater scale than before, and emerged stronger as a result.

When we talk about digital, we mean many things, because digital affects so many aspects of a charity's work. We've tended to find that charities focus first on communications, marketing and fundraising, but often find that there are bigger gains in improving efficiency. It could be about changing systems for managing holiday, or taking payments. Or it could be about working remotely or accessing documents. Or about capturing and studying data about your work and your service users.

Catalyst is interested in helping charities do all those things. But one of the foremost interests of the organisation is about helping charities to create better services and delivering them online. Catalyst is a proponent of a learning-driven, evidence-based approach to service delivery, founded on a single question - what do our users need? - and then involving constant testing, learning and iteration.

Where did Catalyst come from?

Catalyst is a child with many parents. It was conceived by individuals from different parts of the sector in response to a clear need for greater work on underlying infrastructure around digital.

We began life as an experiment – a time-limited entity, designed to see what the nature of the need was, set up with funding from a small group of major grant-givers. For the first year, Catalyst hasn’t been a legal entity. We’ve been incubated at another digital charity, CAST, while we find our feet. CAST has signed all the contracts and employed staff on Catalyst's behalf.

But we're a little bit of a cuckoo in the nest. Catalyst is a bigger project than its host; it is growing very fast, and we’re thinking hard about our future right now. We’re now seeing that there are significant and long-term needs in this field, and looking at the next steps. To what extent can we be owned by the network we serve? Does this work require a permanent and independent organisation with a membership of charities and other key stakeholders - digital agencies, funders and infrastructure bodies? We’re currently looking at models of governance and membership to ensure that we’re as responsive and accountable as possible.

What are we actually doing?

So all of the above is the theory. What, practically, are we doing to help?

Before COVID-19 hit, we were in quite an experimental stage, with a very significant number of different research projects, in partnership with a large number of organisations. One of our first interventions was a course to introduce charities to digital service design, known as a Design Hop. Practically that’s where we still recommend everyone starts.

A lot of our initial work was designed to make the case that digital was important. Suddenly, lockdown overtook us, and within a week or two, it felt as if that case had largely been made. Remote working went through the roof, services were shifting to digital everywhere we looked.

At that point, we had to shift temporarily to being a much more hands-on organisation, delivering quite direct support. We supported digital agencies to work with federated bodies and infrastructure organisations to design new services that would help their members. We gathered and shared a lot of evidence in need. We launched a new website with a library of resources.

Emerging from lockdown, it feels as if we have a much clearer idea of where we can really make a difference. It looks and feels as if we have a small number of potential interventions.

Sharing learning

We've learned a huge amount about how charities progress along a digital journey, and we’re trying to share what we’ve learned about the barriers, the key steps on the journey, and the solutions. We've published a lot of cease studies looking at how charities have changed thanks to digital, and we’re now looking at how we can expose a much wider variety of voices from across the network (let us know here if you’d like to be involved). We're also working on projects to produce a series of guides on how to address different aspects of the journey, based on what we've learned from previous projects.

We've also backed successful podcasts, webinars and research reports from other parts of the sector. We’re looking at whether we should expand into virtual and physical events, and broaden the scope of our training.

Connecting charities to support

A lot of our work is about connecting charities up to the help they need, via resources such as our resource library and helpline service. Or we’re connecting them to the correct professional support, such as digital agencies. Or just connecting charities to each other.

This has taken on a more formal aspect during lockdown. We’ve supported a small number of federated and infrastructure organisations to work with digital professionals and develop new solutions, and we’ve found this is an effective intervention. We’re currently exploring how we can broker more of these relationships.

Policy and advocacy work

This is an area we’re still developing. We’ve worked with tech companies, among others, to try and find greater support for charities. We’ve engaged with other organisations with significant policy functions to help them understand how to use digital.

Perhaps the biggest bit of ongoing work here is around data. We’ve seen during the crisis that there are significant gaps in the data collected on and by charities. So we’re engaging with government, data experts and others to improve this.


Developing and sharing tools and services

We've got a number of different interventions under way here. Our first projects out of the gate have included Dovetail, a tool to help charities find the right digital agency, and service recipes, an attempt to codify the types of services charities frequently offer, in order that they can be easily modelled and emulated.



It wasn’t in our original plans to become a source of direct funding to the voluntary sector, but  increasingly, it seems that this is something we're likely to be asked to take on. We've discovered that for digital funding to be a success, it needs to use the "funder plus" model, where any money is accompanied by specialist professional advice and support, and that’s the approach we’re keen to develop.

Okay, so now what?

Catalyst will be getting more active and you’ll be seeing our name attached to more projects. If you’d like help with any aspect of digital, let us know and we’ll try to help out.

In the meantime, if you’re interested in engaging with our work, we recommend you start with two things. Sign up for an online Design Hop, and subscribe to our weekly bulletin.

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Ellie Hale
Ellie Hale